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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Column, April 24, 2007

DOORS to manual.
A phrase any of you who’ve flown might have subconsciously registered as you approach your destination.
It will probably mean little to you, but if you’re the daughter of a former air stewardess and you’re the girlfriend of the heir to the throne, then hearing it muttered by the various hangers-on attracted by such a man might just mean quite a lot to you.
Kate Middleton’s mother was an air stewardess and while that might not have made a bit of difference to her eligibility as a girlfriend and future wife of Prince William, as far as William, his father, or the Queen are concerned, apparently it made a bit of a difference to assorted ‘courtiers’ who took a dim view of someone of such low breeding.
Of course, the fact that Kate Middleton’s mother and her husband set up and run a business that has earned them millions doesn’t make it any better, in fact it makes it worse.
Those who disapproved of Kate Middleton and muttered doors to manual’ when she came into a room with William do not do anything so common as ‘earn’ money, they inherit it, along with the attitudes that many had thought buried a long, long time ago.
But why should we care about the end of a relationship between one rather privileged young woman and one fabulously privileged young man?
Because he styles himself William Wales and one day, in the normal course of events, he will be Prince of Wales. And whether we agree with that or not, we should have some concern about the behaviour of the man who will bear that title, and his cronies.
There was a time in recent years when the Royal family seemed to have turned a corner. The Queen’s years of dedicated service and the understandable public sympathy for William and Harry after the death of Diana meant that the institution of the royalty had shed its anachronistic image.
People who, it has to be said, do not quite understand how monarchies work, even spoke of skipping a generation and having William ascend to the throne after the Queen, bypassing his father altogether.
William was young, handsome, and popular. He spent his gap year doing good works in South America and elsewhere and on his arm he had a young, attractive girlfriend who, was not titled, could not trace her ancestry back via several European dynasties to the Norman conquests, and was not ‘old money.’
She was, to be blunt, one of us and it looked for a short while, at least if you were Woolworths commemorative pottery department that is, like she was marriage material and might be our future queen.
I don’t think anyone can seriously suggest that William and Kate should have continued a relationship if their hearts weren’t in it. But what hgas been supremely annoying in the past week or so is how the boot has not very subtly been put into Kate Middleton and her family for being, well, not suitable, too middle class to seriously have a hope of one day marrying a prince.
Some idiots were even talking about bloodlines for God’s sake, as if William were some sort of pedigree hound that had taken a shone to a bit of a mongrel.
The theme that ran through the poison dripped on Kate Middleton’s background was that she might be middle class, but that was somehow worse than being working class. The message was clear – the aspirations of the middle classes like the Middletons were basically those of people who do not know their station.
And that’s a little bit of a problem, because, well, an awful lot of us are middle class now.
We might have working class roots, but back in the ‘60s and ‘70s our parents pushed us that bit further up the educational food chain in an effort to give us a better start in life than they had.
As the son of steelworker and a nurse I might have working class roots, but that’s all they are, roots, 20 years in the soft-handed world of journalism after a making it through higher education means I can’t claim to be working class any longer.
And there are a lot of us in that boat – a generation or so out of the working classes.
Now, if the assorted hangers-on, flunkies, and so-called friends, of Prince William are saying to the middle classes, ‘sorry, her mum and dad might be self-made millionaires but she’s still not good enough’, then that’s rather a slap in the face for a large section of the UK population.
And rather than recognising that they should have known their place in life, those middle classes might just begin to question why they tolerate having such an offensive bunch of inbred hoorahs lording it over them.
And they might begin to question the wisdom of an heir to the throne moving in circles when it is considered acceptable to taunt a young woman because her self-made millionairess mother was once airline cabin crew.
William ought to be aware that the comments made by those who claim to know him in the past couple of weeks have been vile and do him no credit. They make him appear to move in circles where inherited wealth and privilege are the only means of being accepted.
But more and more wealth in this country is being created not by dint of who your daddy and his daddy and his daddy was, but by hard work. If you are telling those that create the wealth in this country that their daughters are not good enough for royalty, then they might question why their taxes are good enough to fund the royalty.
William would have been wise to more publicly distance himself from the crass, snobbish and stupid remarks made in the wake of his split with Kate Middleton.
And, if he wields any influence with those who made such idiotic comments, he would be well-advised to tell them to shut up.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Column, April 17, 2007

NOT really a language is it?
That’s the conclusion one or two English people reach when confronted by two welsh words in particular – teledu and toiledau.
It’s more an odd way of pronouncing English isn’t it? We just nick an English word, add in a few ffs, dds, lls and use au instead of s for plurals and bob’s your uncle, or rather wncl as we might have it.
And they’re right. How jealous we must be of a people whose language has remained unsullied by outside influence, pure and true to its Greek and Latin roots.
The English can dine in a restaurant, a la carte on a smorgasbord of, whelks, yoghurt, mousse and fromage frais. Or you might simply sip a latte or a lager in a café and you would still be speaking the Queen’s English.
You could live in a bijou hacienda in a cul-de-sac or plaza, perhaps even a bungalow or a chalet. If your tastes were grander perhaps a place with a concierge or a verandah and naturally its bidet and sauna would be en suite. It would come complete with an au pair and you’d still be speaking the Queen’s English.
You could cover your body with tattoos if that wasn’t taboo and the language you would be using would still be QE.
You might be clothed in a bra, bikini, knickers, bandoleer and culottes, shod in espadrilles, wearing jodhpurs coloured khaki and a kaftan woven from calico or chintz. You might look a bit avant garde, but you would be speaking the Queen’s English.
If animals were your forte you could go on safari to spot penguins, canaries or cockatoos and corgis or even take in a gymkhana or polo match.
An Englishman can take to the road in a diesel-powered juggernaut and even tow a caravan before stopping off at an oasis and the language he would be using would be the Queen’s.
If you were a bit of a thug you might cause a fracas or even mount a coup d’etat to dispose of the ancien regime just like the tsars, and the clique convicted on a dodgy dossier of evidence would be put to the guillotine.
If you were of a more nautical bent you could sail your flotilla, or even an armada or catamarans before putting into a marina.
If the wanderlust seizes you, you could schlep your way to your destination and if you started to perspire then a dab of cologne or eau de toilette will sort it out.
If you were some sort of wunderkind you could tot up the cost of a devastating tsunami using an abacus though pundits might frown if you showed any schadenfreude in the wake of the disaster.
To make the peace you might hold a powwow, but if that didn’t work you could always engage the services of an assassin or mount a guerrilla campaign, naturally using the Queen’s English.
If the cold wind blows then you’ve a choice of anorak, parka or a cagoule to keep out the chill and you’d still be speaking the Queen’s English.
You might think this column a little bizarre or even poppycock, but it’s because there’s a bonanza of words in English that started off their lives not being English and which the English just purloined along the way.
You could in fact spend your whole day speaking English, but using words that weren’t English and if you ran out of steam and feared you might be incommunicado then you simply filibuster.
You see languages don’t work well if they’re subject to some sort of linguistic apartheid, it’s the ability to assimilate others that makes them so strong.
It’s part of the reason that English has become a sort of lingua franca, as it were, it has given it its strength and its enduring character.
There is an irony to those who snigger at the Welsh snaffling a modern word here or there, when English has plundered other languages just as the Empire expanded. They are rightly proud of the language used by Shakespeare, or the Bard, as he is known, a word they stole from the Welsh.
So in answer to those who think toiledau is linguistic larceny, I would point out that today’s column has been brought to you courtesy of Algonquin, Dutch, Eskimo, Egyptian, Finnish, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swahili, Tahitian, Tamil, Tibetan, Tongan, Turkish, Urdu, Yiddish and of course, Welsh, and every word of it the Queen’s English.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg (Dutch word).

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Column, April 10, 2007

I LOVE a good war story.
Probably not the most politically correct thing to admit nowadays, but there you go, I was born just 20 years after we’d defeated Germans a second time and the three TV channels we had in those days fed us a regular diet of war films depicting our victory.
So be it Battle of Britain, Dambusters, D-Day or A Bridge Too Far I would sit spellbound cheering on our chaps and booing the beastly Bosch.
And I think there are plenty of others out there who share my taste for tales of those who heed the call to arms.
We’ve been told tales of those who do battle from Chaucer onwards and some of our greatest literature has been set in wartime – don’t believe me? See Shakespeare’s Henry V.
More recently we’ve seen Andy McNab and others tell the tale of the Bravo Two Zero mission in the first Gulf War.
So why has everyone had an attack of the vapours over the sailors and marines seized by Iran?
I notice that one of the talking heads wheeled out to give an opinion on them selling their story was Bob Stewart, formerly Lt Col Stewart of the Cheshire Regiment. He seemed to give his grudging approval but said it might sour the deal for others with a better story to tell. That’s ‘Bosnia Bob’ who wrote the bestseller ‘Broken Lives’ about his time serving with the conflict.
I don’t know if our own North Wales member of the team that was held by the Iranians, Andrew Henderson, is one of those who has sold his story, but if he has, then good luck to him.
I confess that I cannot understand the attitude displayed by one or two relatives of servicemen who had died in Iraq, who objected to the HMS Cornwall crew selling their stories.
They seemed to be objecting to their profiting from their ordeal, while families of those who die are given very little in the way of compensation. The logic of that argument escapes me I’m afraid. Families of service personnel killed and those who are injured deserve better support than they get at the moment, but that should not stop those with a story to tell telling it and profiting from it if possible.
But then this is just the latest in a long line of rubbish that has been written and broadcast about this crisis.
First we had the Fay Turney – should she have been there, shouldn’t she have been there debate – which, given the fact we have had women serving on front line units for ages now, was frankly fatuous, space-filling nonsense. We’ve got women in the forces now, deal with it.
Then, as the crisis entered its second week journalists short of facts to fill their column inches started speculating on just whether a blooming great big frigate like HMS Cornwall, which is just, so, well, big, could let those nasty Iranians in gunboats take our brave chaps and chapess.
If you are under the impression that mighty Britannia that rules the waves should have blown them out of the water let me tell you a tale about an exercise called Millennium Challenge.
This was one of the biggest military exercises ever staged by the USA, against a fictional Middle Eastern country run by a crackpot despot – sound familiar. For the exercise they had a retired general running the despot’s forces.
When the US fleet sailed into the Gulf, the fleet of small private boats the despot had swarming around them carried out suicide attacks and sank three aircraft carriers, 13 other ships with the loss of thousands of US lives. It was a good job that it was just a desktop exercise.
The Cornwall, a lone frigate, was vulnerable to such swarm attacks and could only stand by and watch its crew members taken. We should have more ships there, with more helicopters, but then many of our ships have been mothballed to save money by the very people who got us into this conflict in the first place.
I might just remind you that the man who sent them into this illegal war, Tony Blair, is rumoured to have a book deal worth £4m lined up to tide him over in his retirement from front line politics. So lets not begrudge those on the real front line from making a fraction of that.

THE little lad at on the pavement was throwing something up in the air and when it went into the road, so did he.
Right in front of my car.
So there were a few things he and I were both thankful for this particular Easter Sunday.
Firstly, I’d been watching where I was going, I’d seen him, and I saw his dive into the road.
Secondly, I was doing less than 30mph.
Thirdly, the brakes on my car worked when I stamped on them.
Of course, it would have been his fault had I not been able to stop in time, but I imagine that would have been little comfort to me and even less to his parents, had I run him over.
So don’t let any of those so-called ‘motorist’s organisations’ that carp about speed cameras kid you that there is no reason for enforcement of speed limits.
It is 30 for a reason and that little lad, and his family, have good reason to know that.

I DIDN’T agree with a lot of what Ivor Wynne Jones wrote in the Daily Post.
But then, that’s kind of the point of a good columnist – which he undoubtedly was.
He had written for this paper for as long as I can remember reading it and a couple of decades beyond that.
He was something of a lodestone, showing true north. You might not want to go north, but it’s always comforting to know which way north lies.
His was a distinctive voice and North Wales will miss it.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Down the Pub

I met an English smoker today who had recently returned from a trip to Wales.

He tells me he walked into a pub where they had been speaking English until he walked in whereupon they all started speaking Welsh.

But not only that...they all stopped smoking too.

Column, April 3, 2007

IT’S not hard to see why people are cynical about politics today.
After all on a daily basis we are reminded just how much they can lie to us when our newspapers and TV screens are filled with images of sailors and marines captured by Iran .
If it weren’t for a few crucial untruths – such as the weapons of mass destruction Iraq was 45 minutes away from using on us – we wouldn’t even be anywhere near that benighted country and our sailors and marines would be in harm’s way elsewhere around the globe.
So when we’re engaged in a war that we were misled into fighting, the stock of our political leaders is going to be a little on the low side as a result.
From the ‘90s onwards we have seen a steady poisoning of political life in the UK as we all too readily followed the US example of using spin and counter spin to knock opinion poll points off one another.
It has reached the stage where those briefing and counter-briefing for their poltical masters care little about what people actually think, but presume that if the media take the bait they must be doing their job.
In the meantime successive elections see turnout figures that would have those who fought and died for our right to vote turn in their graves.
It is always the excuse of the intellectually bone idle for not voting – can’t be bothered, all the parties are the same.
And the party flunkies who contribute to this in turn blame the media for exposing the spin and counter spin that mars today’s political debate.
You only have to listen to five minutes BBC radio of a morning to realise that many of today’s politicians have some sort of genetic affliction which renders them incapable of giving a straight answer. It’s either jam today AND tomorrow or we’re all going to hell in a handcart, depending on which party is giving the answers.
I’ve used to have every sympathy with someone who looks at the cynical manipulation of UK politics and then washes their hands of it and spends polling day mowing the lawn.
But those of you who claim all politicians are the same need to revise that opinion in the wake of a couple of things that have happened in Wales this week
Firstly, the days when a quiet drink in your local resulted in you returning home smelling like an ashtray are over. Smoking has been banned in a public place from now on.
Of course, there will be a hard core of smokers who will not agree with me here and will dream of the day when they can light up their slim panatellas at the bar once more.
But for the majority the freedom not to inhale someone’ else’s cigarette smoke will be a welcome change and for 400 people a year it could mean the difference between life and death – that’s how many they believe die because of smoking related disease but who will be spared by the ban.
On top of that we’ve now got free prescriptions in Wales – which will help some people enormously. OK if you’re on limited income you might already get free prescriptions, but for those on average wages an illness which involved getting two or more medications could be a real drain, especially for chronic conditions that were not quickly cured.
And these two measures were achieved by our Assembly – you might not like them, especially the smoking ban, but you cannot deny they will affect people.
And unlike Westminster politics where the difference between New Labour and New Tories appear to boil down to which way the leaders part their hair, Welsh politics is still refreshingly party political and you have a choice between Oldish Labour, old Plaid Cymru, the Tories and the Lib Dems. And what’s more they seem to have a few ideas that are actually different from one another
So if come the elections in May you’re envisaging a gentle day sharpening the mower blades and giving the lawn another crop – think up another excuse, that one is wearing thin as your lawn.

PERHAPS they are saving it up for the anniversary of victory, but do you detect a slight reticence among the TV channels to mark the Falklands War anniversary?
Whatever your views on sovereignty now that Argentina is a democracy, back then the islands were invaded by a country whose military leaders dealt with opponents by dropping them from helicopters. So we were right to try to kick them out and the fact that we managed it is a tribute to the extraordinary talent, determination and courage of our armed services.
The Argentinians didn’t think we’d try, the Americans thought we would try but we’d never pull it off, but in what was a very close run thing which would have been turned by a couple more accurate Exocets, we won.
For many of us in this country it was as formative an experience as, say, living through the Second World War was for a previous generation. It was a cornerstone of our experience and it defined us as a nation.
And so, 25 years on, you would have thought a little more would be made of what happened back then – a more organised, higher-profile commemoration of what went on.
Instead we seem to be on an interminable and highly-publicised guilt trip about slavery, laid on us by the BBC, despite the fact that none of us, not a one, had anything to do with it, nor would we in any way condone it.
But the Falklands , which were liberated by a fair few Welshmen as I remember, seem to be passing us by a little. The odd documentary here and there buried in the schedules in the twilight hours, but little else.
Perhaps, in the words of Woody Allen, they’re saving it up until the end and giving it us big, and the commemorations of our victory will be slightly higher profile.
We don’t wear victory well unfortunately, which can sometimes leave those who made sacrifices for it feel that they have been forgotten. We ought to remember that, whatever the political back story, the Falkland Islanders were a free people and they remained free because of the ability of members of our armed forces to fight and willingness to give their lives for that freedom.
And that is something we should remember with gratitude.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Column, March 27, 2007

Q. I say, I say, I say,what’s the secret of good comedy?
A. I don’t know what is the sec …
Q. TIMING!
Yes, well it loses something when it’s written down and it’s not being delivered by Woody Allen, but you get the gist…I hope.
The secret of good comedy is also to never, ever, not once, let a politician deliver a gag in a speech.
Alright, they might be great at the one-liners in real life – think Winston Churchill and the lady who said she’d poison him is she were his wife, quick as a flash he said if she were his wife he’d drink it.
Or the battleaxe MP who told him he was drunk, to which he replied, yes, and she was ugly, but he would be sober in the morning.
And Denis Healey’s dead sheep jibe will be printed with his own and Geoffrey Howe’s obituary no doubt.
But it’s in conference’s speeches that they collectively administer the coup de grace to anything remotely funny.
You see, they’ve read the speech over and over again and they know they’re going for a laugh at this point, and they don’t want it to fall flat in front of the cameras, so they deliver it with all the subtlety of a brick in the forehead.
If it were not for the serried ranks of party members clapping and laughing loyally they would get the gong and be unceremoniously hoiked of the stage by a large hook.
Think Thatcher and her “every Prime Minister needs a Willie” – she was talking, about Whitelaw and I just don’t want to go any further.
Or Iain Duncan-Smith and his “quiet man turning up the volume” speech, just…dire.
And now Ieuan Wyn Jones has joined the fray with a crack at Peter Hain.
Here it is and be warned, should you be drinking tea, prepare to splutter it across the breakfast table at your nearest and dearest in a display on uncontrollable mirth.
Now the set up for this gag is the fact that Peter Hain’s very positive slogan as we approach the Assembly elections is “Vote Plaid and get Tories”. You also need to know that Hain’s ambition of getting his hands on the deputy leadership of the Labour party has been backed by none other than Richard Wilson, aka, One Foot in the Grave Star.
Now, I don’t know if some bright spark in Plaid party command had this bright idea, or whether it was Ieuan himself.
But quick as a flash, well, several weeks after Hain came up with his slogan, Ieuan shoots back: “Well in the words of his new best friend Victor Meldrew ‘I don’t believe it’ and neither will the people of Wales.”
I wasn’t at the conference – I’m not entirely sure they would let me in even if I asked – but I’m guessing this had the party faithful rolling in the aisles, or rather chortling and politely applauding, while the rest of Wales simply wondered whether they might find a re-run of ‘One Foot..’ on digital somewhere, anything was better than this.
The sad thing is that Ieuan Wyn Jones’s crack was in response to admittedly negative campaigning by Labour, and so they responded with some negativity of their own.
It’s all very well harping on about how negative Labour are, but if you then come up with a little list of just how rubbish Labour have been for the past few years it rings a little hollow.
The problem is that in amongst the party politicking Ieuan had secreted away a few policies which actually look interesting and which to dust off an old political cliché, put clear blue water between them and Labour and the Tories together.
An inflation cap on council tax for pensioners and plans to repay student loans for five years for those who stay to work in Wales.
Pensioners will like the first idea and I really like the second. Time and again I’ve banged on in this column about the drain of young talented people out of Wales and at last Plaid has seen fit to come up with an idea that is just a start to remedying it.
Of course, to resurrect political cliché number two, the devil is in the detail, as many former students do not have to pay off their student loans immediately because their first jobs are relatively low paid and they don’t cross the threshold at which they have to start paying their loans.
So if Plaid are promising to make payments and then they won’t need to make any it’s a bit of an empty promise. F however, they’re promising to start repaying regardless of income then that’s a great idea and if they’ve costed it out and it won’t break the bank then it’s a really creative bit of thin king about how Wales can retain some of its young talent.
Likewise £5,000 match deposits for first-time buyers is another great bit of thinking which might help redress some, just some, of the issues in the housing market in Wales. It’s never going to be the whole answer, but if it helps just a few get onto the housing ladder it’s go to be a good thing – but again, just as long as Plaid’s sums stack up.
The frustrating thing is that when, to complete the hat trick of political clichés, you’re forever asking politicians ‘where’s the beef?’ and along comes Ieuan with rump, ribeye and sirloin in one speech, it needs no dressing up, especially with fourth-rate gags about a BBC series that ended years ago.